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Scientific evidence for defeating ISIS

Club de Madrid article on the occasion of the launching of the Club de Madrid project 'Preventing Violent Extremism: Leaders telling a different story', supported by the European Commision

On September 12th 2016, fifteen young Arabs and Muslims were executed in the Syrian city of Al Mayadin. The town is two hours driving from the border with Iraq. Since July 2014, the terrorist group ISIS controled with iron hand the municipality.

The victims were most of them under their 20s. A unit of the terrorist group ISIS arrested them in the street, handcuffed hands and feet, dressed them in orange suits and moved them to the slaughterhouse of the town. There, three executioners hung them by the feet with chains and slaughtered them with knifes, one by one. The last one of the hostages was knelt and forced for a few seconds to contemplate the Dantesque image of his 14 companions beheaded. Then, he also was beheaded.

The whole scene was recorded by a professional audiovisual production team, which included several high-quality digital cameras, expensive programs for edition and graphic designers. The video was recorded in early September 2016 and released by ISIS on September 12th, the day of the feast of lamb, Eid al-Adha, a date full of symbolism for the Islamic tradition. For Muslims, the sacrifice of the lamb is a sign of submission and gratitude of the mercy of Allah to save a human life and instead sacrifice a lamb.

The murder of 15 young Al Mayadeen represents, in addition to an irreparable human tragedy, a deep blasphemy to the principles of Islam and a direct affront to the spirit of Eid. Therefore, this ISIS video was not intended to seduce an audience follower of Islamic principles or send a religious message.

By contrast, the analysis of its cultural iconography provides a disturbing conclusion. The terrorist group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been aware from the first minute that the battle for public opinion to seduce minds and hearts was almost as important as the military victory on the ground.

The terrorists used the execution to produce an audiovisual cultural product that could be perceived as culturally familiar, popular and imitable by potential audiences. The scenes of the beheading of the young Syrians showed a clear resemblance to the ones from a popular teen horror film: Hostel. Not only that, the first minute of the video shows a succession of images of the action film Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. A spy film starring Tom Cruise.

Since January 2014, until mid September 2016, the terrorist group ISIS has recorded, edited and released to the public opinion 1,308 videos of propaganda, an average of more than one propaganda video per day. This data reveals ISIS as the terrorist organization that has invested more efforts and resources in communications than any other previous terrorist group ever.

What is ISIS saying? The first element of analysis to understand the political and social strategy of ISIS is getting to know what topics the terrorists are using to seduce their audiences. The analysis of 1,308 videos shows that the group led by Baghdadi always refers to four main themes. The most recurrent subject, with 33 percent of the videos, is the interviews with young people from all around the world and different backgrounds explaining in all languages why they have decided to join the Islamic State. The leader of the terrorist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears only once. The data shows that the terrorists want to create the perception of being an spontaneous and grass-rooted movement, in contrast to the traditional power structures that are vertical and hierarchical.

The second major issue is related to the creation of the perception that ISIS is a powerful and victorious army. 27 percent of the videos shows acts of war where militants of the terrorist group fight against soldiers of Syria, Iraqi, Kurdistan, Libya or Egypt. Most of these war videos are produced with new audiovisual techniques such as go-pro cameras, drones and digital editing programs that create in the viewer a feeling of participating in a video game.

The third element used by ISIS is directly linked with the creation of a new social contract with the Sunni population of Iraq and Syria. 24 percent of the videos are about the terrorist group exercising government actions, solving local public problems, and engaging socially with the local population.

Finally, 15 percent of the videos of the terrorist group project images of explicit violence. However, the most interesting aspect of this issue is the fact that at least 50 percent of these executions are inspired by scenes of the most popular action movies and videogames among young audiences in Western countries.

ISIS has created a new and efficient way to socialize terror, spread its propaganda and recruit new members.

With an increase of 80 percent of deaths caused by terrorism in 2015, democracies and governments all over the world are struggling to find a clear reaction. We need to analyze ISIS' narrative from a scientific point of view to understand the political, social and military strategy of the group that currently causes the greatest global threat, and then add the political leadership and wisdom to implement campaigns with a clear common set of values and principles to promote. In this sense the latest contribution of the Club de Madrid, the forum of democratic former leaders from 69 nations whose mandate is to promote democracy, is the initiative "Leaders telling a different story", a project supported by the European Commission aimed at strengthen counter violent narratives and positive messaging and bridging the gap between government officials and civil society actors, practitioners and journalists.

This way, scientifically understanding and defining the ISIS strategy and politically building the adequate messages and responses, we will provide ourselves with the resources and the necessary basis to face and defeat violent extremism in all areas, including the cultural battle.

Signed by
Mehdi Jomaa, former Prime Minister of Tunisia and Club de Madrid Member
Javier Lesaca, researcher, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University